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Lip Service?

lipsA few days ago, something interesting came in the mail: a copy of the Columbia Law School Graduation Address given by Dean David M. Schizer on May 21. Now we all know that I am an academic romantic and a fan of graduations, so for me this was exciting stuff. The title of the address was indeed appropriate: Beginning Your Career in Challenging Times. I saw this title, this simple string of candid and honest words, and flashed back to my CLS graduation. I remember the day, the pounding rain, the helicopters buzzing overhead, the palpable sense of promise in the May air. It was our day. Most of us had good jobs lined up and our biggest worry was the looming Bar Exam. How different things are today. A law degree from an elite institution is no longer a guarantee. Start dates have been put off. Insecurity and uncertainty reign supreme.

In his address, Schizer compellingly captures the difficulties of this more sober time in American and legal history. Appropriately, he speaks of the vital importance of ethics and conscience and how it is up to the graduates to fix a system that is indeed badly broken. Schizer's words are economical, eloquent, evocative. I like to think of myself as a metaphor connoisseur and his passed muster. He notes that this graduation is "a bit like finishing a marathon only to be caught in a thunderstorm as you cross the finish line."

But buried in this speech is something important, something that transcends tough times and tattered economies. Something that struck me and stayed with me. Schizer says, "Remember that, however much you achieve in your professional life, perhaps the deepest imprint that you will leave in the world is on the people close to you. It takes energy and effort to nurture these relationships, and sometimes, at the end of a long work day, you will feel your strength failing. But don't let this go. There is nothing more important in your lives."

Yes. Personal relationships. Happiness. These are indeed the most important things in our lives. Yes! In life, we are able to run marathons and weather storms because of the support and love of other people. Yes. But Schizer moves on from this "most important thing" very quickly. He spends the balance of his speech talking about other things, predictable things. His remarks are peppered with words we hear all the time: profession, success, roles, systems, players, markets, incentives, information, talent, resources.

Why such a quick and fleeting mention of personal fulfillment if it is indeed the most important thing? Maybe because such soft and fuzzy talk does not a potent graduation speech make. Presumably, these graduates did not incur huge loans to be told at the finish line that they should go on to foster friendships and families? Or perhaps the explanation is more sinister. Perhaps professional achievement at the highest level in law and beyond is incompatible with personal achievement? Are Schizer and his fellow colleagues at the helm of our professional ships just paying lip service to the idea that the maintenance of personal relationships is the most important thing? Are they all talk? I certainly hope not. But I fear maybe.

I didn't last long in BigLaw. But I remember many stories. One story: I was staffed with a senior associate on a case. We spent a good bit of time together. I respected her. Through the corporate casual garb and the professional decorum, I caught a glimpse of who she was as a person. She seemed nice and smart, interesting and thoughtful. My best friend's bachelorette party was approaching and I told Senior Associate that I would be happy to help her with whatever she needed, but that I would be going out of town the following weekend. She nodded. And then I decided to share some details. To make this all more human. I told her I was headed to Miami to celebrate with my friend. Suddenly, her kind eyes were glossed with disapproval. She said, "Aidan, never talk about your personal life here. People do not want to know that you have a personal life." Lesson learned. And fast.

Are professional success and personal happiness mutually exclusive? In the high wattage professional world, do leaders truly encourage the development of robust and rewarding personal relationships or is the very development of these relationships at odds with professional focus and market-measurable success?

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